The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
by Laura Miller, 2008
Reviewed by Erzebet YellowBoy

Most readers of Cabinet des Fées will be familiar with Narnia, the controversial creation of C.S. Lewis that still delights and sometimes horrifies both children and adults. First published in 1950, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was followed by six more titles in The Chronicles of Narnia series. In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller explores her love affair with the works of C.S. Lewis and with Narnia itself, and make no mistake — these are affairs, with all of the passion and heartbreak that entails. Miller is a staff writer for and has contributed works to the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and more, and her obvious love of literature shines through. When she writes eloquently about her desire to collect a hardbound edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not for the sake of owning another possession, but to secure “a portal”, many of us know exactly what she means. This is much more than a book about a series of books, however. This is an insight into how, as we grow from children to adults, our understanding of the world around us and the world within us changes. Miller’s journey through Narnia is that of an adult — she went in as a child and came out changed, if one can say any of us who ever went to Narnia left it.

Laura Miller knows her material. The Magician’s Book is not just an exploration of Narnia. In it Miller compares and contrasts Lewis’ ideals and his creation to other literary works and authors, and looks at how Narnia has manifested in popular culture. She covers C.S. Lewis’ childhood, his education, friendships, interests and even his religion, though this latter only lightly as Lewis’ faith and the books’ Christian subtext has been extensively covered elsewhere. Everything that informed the creation of The Chronicles is here, and through it all Miller shares her own reactions to these influences. For her, she claims, “Narnia was Christianity’s antidote”, it having been diluted to its essence and therefore less Christian than critics make it out to be. Most telling, however, is her relationship with the characters that populate Narnia. She speaks most highly of Lucy Pevensie, for example, the child she admires for being “good without being a prig or a bore”. If C.S. Lewis is right, and a book can be judged by how it is read as opposed to how it is written, then the Narnia books must surely be found worthy.

Miller touches on the notion that fantasy can be considered escapist, and that those who indulge in fantasy do so because they are unable to cope with the “real” world. What people who say such things fail to understand is that the world of Narnia is real. Narnia holds for us the allure of a secret garden, a place where the worries and drudgery of the world cannot interfere (until the dinner bell rings or the alarm goes off). We know that the walled garden in The Magician’s Nephew is Lewis’ version of Eden, complete with a naughty woman feasting on the apples within, but Narnia itself is a secret garden; we do not go there so much to escape, but to taste the delights of a place that can only be just for us.

Authors of older fairy tales, such as The Chronicles, often literally speak to their readers in the way modern writers are sometimes warned against: “Have you ever had a gallop on a horse?” Lewis, as the narrator, asks of us. C.S. Lewis had no problem speaking to his readers as though they were children and of course, many of them were and are, but this use of language speaks as well to adults. As Miller says, the Narnia books give “child characters the chance to be taken seriously”. These books also offer us, as adults, the chance to engage seriously with the story we are being asked to believe. One could say The Magician’s Book is a defense of the way in which children read and absorb story, and perhaps an admonition to adults to try to recapture some of that innocence in interpretation.

Miller states that “most of us are taught to read with an intellectual distance” — for someone such as myself, who never mastered the technique, reading this book has been an enlightening experience. She admits that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will always be the best book she’s ever read — she cannot be objective. I don’t want her to be. Her love of The Chronicles of Narnia, with all of its flaws and blemishes and moments of utter triumph, is related exactly as it should be, with excitement and respect for a story and a place that has had a profound impact on her imagination and, by extension, her very life. Again, many of us know exactly what she means.